A clarinet concerto is born: Kenneth Froelich and the Fresno Philharmonic bring ‘Melt,’ inspired by climate change, to life

Kenneth Froelich was on edge Wednesday. You would be, too, if in a matter of hours your brand new concerto was going to be played live in rehearsal for the first time. And not by just any musicians – these were 75 or so professional players in the Fresno Philharmonic who would be sitting down with the piece, plus a virtuoso soloist who flew in for the occasion. Froelich had “heard” the score for his “Melt: Concerto for the Clarinet” before, but only through the standard computer simulation that composers can use when they’re working on the piece; the live rehearsal would be an entirely different experience.

“I’m a nervous wreck,” he told me beforehand.

Pictured above: Kenneth Froelich, top, and Jorge Montilla Moreno will join the Fresno Philharmonic for the world premiere of ‘Melt.’

But the Fresno State composition professor was also exhilarated. Composers have to live in their heads for so much of the time. Their internal worlds are filled with themes and notes and motifs and chords. For them to get out of all that, to share the outside world with musicians actually playing those notes and chords, can be something of a heady experience.

The public will get a chance to hear the world premiere of Froelich’s piece in concert (7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12, Saroyan Theatre) in the first Masterworks performance this year of the Fresno Philharmonic. Featured soloist is clarinetist Jorge Montilla Moreno, with Rei Hotoda conducting. The program also includes Juan Pablo Contreras’ “Mariachitlan” and Elgar’s famed “Enigma Variations.”

Here’s a rundown on how “Melt” came to life:


The timeline: In 2018, Froelich was in the process of applying for a sabbatical at Fresno State and had the ambitious idea of writing a concerto. He approached Hotoda and asked if she’d be open to a piece that he could write for Montilla, a former classmate at Indiana University. (Froelich had written a piece for clarinet and string quartet, “Blue Fire,” that was premiered by Montilla.) Hotoda encouraged the idea, and Froelich wrote the bulk of the piece on sabbatical in 2019. He finished up the orchestrations in 2020, and the plan was to premiere it in spring of 2021. It got pushed back because of Covid-19 to 2022.

The clarinet part: Froelich definitely wrote the piece with Montilla in mind. (On Facebook, the composer wrote: “Hear Jorge Montilla play the billions of notes I wrote for him — heck, he might literally light his clarinet on fire with my music.”)

The theme: Froelich was inspired specifically by climate change when he was writing the piece. He wrote it in three movements, but those movements aren’t the structure you’d expect (fast introduction, slow middle, fast finale) that you associate with traditional classical concertos. Instead the movements are more thematic and highly personal.

The content: When I talked with Montilla about the piece, the clarinetist emphasized something that Froelich also mentioned: There isn’t anything literal in the music about climate change, but once you know the composer’s state of mind, connections can be made. “There is not a narrative behind the music,” Montilla said. “The music is not evocative. So it’s not like a soundtrack. This is more like pure music.”

The first movement: The first is “White Ice,” which Froelich describes as inspired by glacial melt. The clarinetist in this movement takes on the role of an observer observing the beauty of the glacier. The music is impressionistic, very majestic, and then turns around in the course of the movement to reflect deterioration, or melting.

The second movement: Titled “Gray Matter,” it is a play on the idea of brains melting. “And in particular, you know, thinking about my own perspective of watching the news, and basically, how climate change is an issue that just doesn’t seem to be taken seriously in a way that really needs to be taken,” Froelich says. He grew up in a household in which science was king (his father was a science reporter for the San Diego Union). “I’ve been aware of these issues my entire life,” he said. “So it’s my brain melting a little bit.”

The third movement: It’s called “Black Steel,” and it’s the most personal for Californians, because it’s inspired by the idea of steel girders melted by out-of-control wildfires. “This is directly related to the impact on California as a result of climate change. So this one has a lot of warping of sound. And this is represented in some ways by use of multiphonics by the clarinetist.”

And multiphonics are: Basically, the clarinetist performs a specific kind of alternate fingering. that creates a composite sound that is made up of a few different notes. It shouldn’t be confused with a chord, but it does have a sort of digital quality to it that sounds like it could have been manipulated by a computer. “It’s almost like a distortion,” Froelich says. “I like to think of it as if you could give a distortion pedal to a clarinet player.”

The difficulty: It’s a tough piece, especially the second music, which Froelich says he purposefully made virtuosic. Did it turn out to be difficult? “It is actually, yes!” Montilla said with a laugh.

The politics: Froelich sees the piece on different levels. On one hand, he was clearly inspired by climate change and the concern he feels that should be taken deadly seriously. On the other hand, he hopes that there’s room for people who might not be on the same wavelength as him politically – but who can still appreciate the emotional intensity he brings to the piece. His view: “Ultimately, this is still an expression of music. I want people to hear the impressionistic grandeur of the first movement. I want people to hear the virtuosic nervous frustration that’s present in the second movement. I want people to hear the distorted colors present in the third movement that build to a frenzy … So it’s my hope that even if someone who maybe has a different opinion on climate change, they can still hear the emotional components.”

The first rehearsal aftermath: It went really well. In a Facebook update, Froelich posted that the musicians were already doing an amazing job learning the ins-and-outs of this work (and “probably also wondering what madness drives my writing!”)

Conductors make a difference: “I can’t say enough thanks to Rei Hotoda for bringing this work to life,” he also wrote on Facebook after the giddiness of the first rehearsal. “Without her willingness to take a chance on this premiere, this would have never even gotten off the ground. Rei has brought an incredible vision of contemporary music to Fresno, and we are so incredibly fortunate to have her as our conductor.”

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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